How can Australia repair its relationship with France after the AUKUS submarine row?

The continuing diplomatic rift between France and Australia is “not about the submarines”, says Romain Fathi, a French-Australian historian from Flinders University.

“The French are very upset because [they] thought we had established a genuine, positive relationship with Australia,” Dr Fathi said.

“But of course the French misunderstood Australian culture … the way the Australian psyche works.”

The AUKUS pact with the UK and US to acquire nuclear submarines is seen as the most important strategic shift for Australia in more than half a century. 

However, it has come at the expense of French-Australian relations, which some say are at the lowest point in living memory.

So, what are the implications for the Pacific? What might France do to Australia in retaliation? 

And what, if anything, can the federal government do to make up for it?

Why are the French so angry?

The French government responded to Australia’s decision to dump the $90 billion contract for French-designed submarines last week by recalling its ambassadors to the US and Australia.

After a phone conversation between US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, the French ambassador is heading back to Washington, but Mr Macron still isn’t taking Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s calls.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has said  that the deal with them would be cancelled, before it was publicly announced.

But Mr Morrison later said he had tried to call Mr Macron just hours before the AUKUS announcement.

And France now claims Australian diplomats wrote to them saying were “satisfied” with how the diesel-electric submarines deal was progressing on the very day it was canned.

“Communication has been pretty poor because we work on very different cultural systems,” Dr Fathi told the ABC.

But he said it was “naive” of France to think it could replace the US and UK as Australia’s most important ally.

“You can’t just show up and think that suddenly things are going to revolve around you.

“Australia doesn’t care so much about sovereignty, it cares about security.”

Australia was identified as a key partner after Mr Macron announced France’s new Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018.

“The strategic partnership with [Australia] is based on a deep security and defence cooperation effort,” declared the French government’s 2021 update on the strategy released last month, with a foreword from Mr Macron.

“[Cooperation was] consolidated by the Naval Group being chosen in 2016 for the construction of the future Australian ocean-going submarines.”

This was why, Dr Fathi said, the diplomatic spat was “not about the money”.

“Twelve submarines is a drop in the ocean of contracts that France has.

“The submarines were the tip of the iceberg for a partnership with Australia, and for a ‘third way’ in the Pacific.”

When Mr Morrison was in France in June, Mr Macron declared a “full and complete” commitment to the submarine deal and to “meet the needs of Australia” towards “common ambitions”.

“[The submarines are] a pillar of our partnership and the relationship of confidence between our countries,” he said.

France and Australia are both significant players in the Pacific, who share concern about the growing regional economic and military influence of China.

Erin Watson-Lynn, a Melbourne-based foreign affairs analyst, said France’s public anger could also be intended to send a message to Beijing.

“If France is seen as too aligned to the US, or UK, or Australia, then it can’t actually play that mediating role with China [and the EU],” she said.

What’s more, the French government says 1.5 million of its citizens are in the Indo-Pacific.

At least 500,000 live in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, right on Australia’s doorstep.

“France is actually very close geographically to Australia,” Ms Watson-Lynn said.

“The closest countries to Australia are PNG (Papua New Guinea), East Timor, Indonesia, and France, through New Caledonia.

“This stuff does actually matter in our region, and there could be consequences.”

What might France do in retaliation?

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the “brutal” and “unpredictable” announcement of AUKUS reminded him of former US president Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, Dr Fathi said “it’s a lot easier to retaliate against Canberra, than it is against Washington”.

That is bad news for Australia, with Trade Minister Dan Tehan heading off to Europe with Canberra attempting to negotiate a free trade agreement.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed concern this week that “one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we want to know what happened and why”.

“First of all, clarify that before we can keep on going with business as usual,” she said.


The EU is Australia’s second-largest trading partner and its second-largest source of foreign investment, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Dr Fathi said France would be pushing its EU partners to play hardball with Australia, as the bloc has done in free trade negotiations with Britain.

One way to do this could be to punish Australia for a lack of action on climate change, he said.

Just as Germany is the economic powerhouse of the EU, France sees itself as the diplomatic and strategic voice of the bloc, Ms Watson-Lynn said.

“France has huge interests at both ends of the Indo-Pacific”, and could also look to frustrate Australia’s so-called Pacific step up, she said.

France also holds territory in Antarctica, and this could be “consequential” for Australia, Dr Watson-Lynn said.

The ABC sent questions to the French embassy and European Union Delegation in Canberra but did not receive a response.

What should Australia do?

The announcement of AUKUS came days apart from the EU announcing its own Indo-Pacific strategy, which some say was not an accident.

A key pillar of the strategy is to complete EU trade negotiations with Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand.

“What Australia’s going to have to do is play really nicely with some of the other biggish EU members, so Germany, potentially Italy as well, to balance out France’s influence,” Ms Watson-Lynn said.

“There’s going to have to be some kind of diplomatic effort … because it could be damaging to the FTA negotiations, definitely.”

Mr Morrison flying back to Washington and “snubbing the French” was “exactly what they shouldn’t do”, Dr Fathi said.

“This is the best way of having the heaviest retaliation possible.”

Australia should instead emphasise that heightened tensions with China have changed its defence priorities, he said.

“They should re-ensure, that any French company that is in this country, and there are a fair few, that Australia is committed to a strong relationship with French companies.

“They need to say as quickly as possible ‘we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater’. It’s just diplomacy and submarines, but there are so many things greater than this.”

Former Australian diplomat Hugh Piper wrote this week that Canberra should “present concrete proposals for French troop rotations in Australia and potentially even a basing arrangement for French ships”.

Supporting France’s interests in New Caledonia, especially with another independence referendum approaching this December, presents the “greatest opportunity” to get back on side, he argued.

Australia could also consider relaxing working holiday visas and other visa arrangements for French citizens as a sign of goodwill, Ms Watson-Lynn said.

“There’s a lot of symbolic damage” to the relationship with France which needed to be compensated symbolically, she said.

Video: Australia’s new submarine deal could affect relationship with France (ABC NEWS)

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